History of Theater: 1890 - 1920

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  • Topic: Broadway theatre, George M. Cohan, Florenz Ziegfeld
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  • Published : December 4, 2010
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“Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” – William Shakespeare

The theatre has been a part of entertainment since ancient Greece, around 4th century BC or thereabouts. The theatre grew out of festivals in honor of the god Dionysus. Aeschylus created the first play in her honor. The first Greek plays were all tragedies but eventually comedy made its way and these plays were performed at festivals all over Greece. Through the centuries theater played the main role of entertainment from noble and royalty to the common person in any city or village, and as we move into the twenties century, theater was still a huge part of the entertainment for the masses.

At the start of the 20th Century, America was in full glory of its cultural adolescence, bursting with energy. London was still the theatrical center of the world, but New York was gaining its own form of sophistication and acknowledgement. By 1900 most of the signs on Broadway had gone electric, and New York City’s famous theater district soon became know as “The Great White Way.” It was known as the Mecca of the American theatrical world: the rest of the country was referred to by people in show business as “the road.” In 1904, the city opened its first underground subway system, and thanks to this system, tens of thousands living far from the theatre district could catch a Broadway show and still be home the same evening. With this increase of commuters and the ever growing number of tourist to New York, Broadway theatres’ audiences more than tripled in less that one year. Thus the productions had longer running times than ever before. At this time the majority of Broadway shows came from London, with English actors, producers, and directors. Then in 1903, Frank L. Baum’s children’s novel The Wizard of Oz was the first-ever all American musical to be performed on Broadway. The story of Dorothy and her pet cow Imogene (the cow was easier to see from the balcony than a small dog named Toto) took audiences to a magical land call Oz. The production included lavish costumes and fantastic fantasy sets and a state-of-the-art cyclone. This production had several hit songs but due to the fantastic MGM’s 1939 film, these songs faded from the general public’s memory. After a very long run on Broadway, The Wizard of Oz enjoyed a long running national tour, and thanks to the improvements of the railway system, the show was able to take a full scale Broadway production set and costumes on the road. By 1904 it is believed that over 400 different shows where touring the United States with full Broadway production values. The only snag in some of these performances is having theaters in different cities that are able to hold such a production. With this need, the boom of grand theaters around the country began. Many of these theatres are still in operation today. As the theatre business was booming, the need for new shows was increasing the opportunity for new playwrights were wide open. People like George M. Cohan, Victor Herbert, and Florenz Ziegfeld stepped up to the call. George M. Cohan was a writer, director, choreographer, and producer and stared in several of his own shows. He was famous for his jingoistic musical comedies that celebrated the triumph of the American know-how and New York style street smarts. Though most of his productions had short runs on Broadway, the musicals that toured the United States were met by packed houses several years. His most memorable hit was Little Johnny Jones, where Cohan played an American jockey who loses the English Derby, clears himself of false charges that he threw the race, and wins the girl he loves. The songs “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway” from this show made Cohan a nationwide household name. Cohn’s...
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